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I often credit the late Stephen Jay Gould’s book Wonderful Life, for inspiring me to pursue a career in palaeontology.  I first discovered the Burgess Shale one Saturday morning sometime in 1990 or 1991 while listening to CBC Radio’s science show Quirks and Quarks.   In this episode, Professor Gould was interviewed about his recent book documenting the discovery, history of research, and significance of the world-famous Burgess Shale in British Columbia’s Yoho National Park.  I went out and bought the book later that afternoon.

It was amazing.  I was, at the time, an officer in the navy and read the book by the dim bunk-light in my cabin each night, enthralled by drama of life’s history that so eloquently unfolded on the pages of Wonderful Life.  Page after page was devoted to the reconstruction of the ‘Weird Wonders’ of the Burgess Shale; creatures so bizarre and alien they seem more like concoctions of Lovecraftian fantasy than long-extinct denizens of ancient seas.  While it’s true that reading Wonderful Life influenced my decision to become a palaeontologist and, more particularly, to focus upon fossils of the Cambrian Period, it was not the only influence that guided me along this path.  I was an avid SCUBA diver at that time, and logged many hours exploring the sea floor on the coast of Vancouver Island.  I was captivated by the strange invertebrate animals that I met on my dives: frosted nudibranchs, tentacled sea anemones, sea urchins, sun stars, sea cucumbers, octopods and diverse others.  I had been entertaining a possible career in marine biology until Wonderful Life steered me down another path.

It is probably of little surprise that I took so much pleasure in the invertebrates of the Gulf Islands, and even more in the ‘Weird Wonders’ of the Burgess Shale.  I’d been attracted to the alien aspect of the oceanic realm ever since my introduction to the works of H.P. Lovecraft, probably the greatest writer of weird fiction of the twentieth century.  I first discovered Lovecraft while in my teens and I have remained a great fan of his disturbing and evocative writing ever since.

Most of Lovecraft’s stories were published in pulp magazines in the the 1920’s and ’30’s up until his death in 1937, and though he was obscure during his life, he is a source of inspiration of most modern writers of horror – most notably, Stephen King.  Among Lovecraft’s best-known stories are those of the ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ – bleak, pessimistic stories of cosmic horror whose protagonists, upon learning the true nature of reality inevitably go mad.  Lovecraft’s mythos is named for Cthulhu, an enormous cephalopod-headed cosmic horror that lies slumbering in the sunken city of R’lyeh, deep beneath the sea.  This opening passage from his famous 1926 short story The Call of Cthulhu sums up the bleak nature of Lovecraft’s stories:

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

My favourite Lovecraft story, for obvious reasons, is At the Mountains of Madness which details a geological expedition to Antarctica that finds fossils of highly-evolved creatures, dubbed “Elder Things,” in Precambrian strata.  Without giving too much away, the expedition ends in disaster and the story begins with the narrative of the team leader documenting his account of the expedition in hopes of discouraging any future scientific investigations into the mountains of madness.

I have little doubt that my fascination with marine invertebrates, to some degree, stems from an early exposure to Lovecraft.  I have even less doubt that Gould’s description of the Charles Walcott’s discovery of the Burgess Shale in 1909 stirred my imagination in exactly the same way as did Lovecraft’s description of the doomed Miskatonic University expedition to the antarctic mountains of madness.

I think, though it hasn’t occurred to me until recently, that I get much the same thrill out of being a palaeontologist as I do from reading Lovecraft.  Imagine unearthing a rock that has been buried for hundreds of millions of years and finding a bizarrely formed fossilized animal that no person has ever seen before.  That thrill of discovery is what drove me to palaeontology and, more particularly, to study fossils from the dawn of multicellular life – the chance of finding something no one has ever seen before, just like those doomed heroes of Lovecraft’s fantasies unearthing secrets man was not meant to know.

Of course most of the time one’s fossil discoveries are within the realm of the conventional – sure new species of existing taxa are quite often discovered, but you don’t usually find something completely out of the ordinary.  Having the opportunity to work at the William Lake  Lagerstätte in central Manitoba has provided unparalleled opportunity to unearth some really amazing sea scorpions, jellyfish, horseshoe crabs and many other rare fossils.

The images below are two halves (valves) of a phosphatic shelled organism unknown to science, which I discovered from Middle Cambrian strata in the Black Hills of South Dakota in the summer of 2001.

Dorsal interior

Ventral exterior

They are still undescribed, partly because I still don’t know quite what to make of them.  They superficially resemble brachiopods, the group that I especially study, but they are something altogether different.

With every rock you overturn and every slab you split there is the chance of a new discovery; possibly something weird and wonderful that dwelt in the oceans of insanity.

Given my interest in the obscure literary sub-genre of palaeo-horror, I was pleased to discover a great new addition to the genre called In the Seams, written by Andrew C. Porter and published in Apex Magazine. The story, which can be read by following the above link, is about Pennsylvania coal miners who make an unusual fossil discovery.  One of the miners, in true Lovecraftian tradition, becomes obsessed with the discovery, working each night after the operation shuts down to further expose the site.  What he discovers is the cause of a mass extinction that nearly destroyed all life on Earth – a particularly voracious predatory creature into which the miner slowly metamorphoses, with dire consequences for our own world.  The story is a very entertaining piece of weird fiction in the Lovecraftian style, which is marred only by the author’s misunderstanding of geological time.  The mass extinction that wiped out 96% of the earth’s species occurred at the end of the Permian Period.  The fossils of the creatures that supposedly caused it were found in coal seams of Carboniferous age, deposited about 50 million years before the Permo-Triassic mass extinction.  But if you can overlook this gaffe, the story is well worth the read.

Long-forgotten Lore

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